Why the Bechdel Test Matters (As Told by a Male Film Critic)

When I first became a movie critic in 2007, it was at a weekly paper in Texas. I loved movies, but I only started reviewing because I was an investigative reporter there first. Texas is a beautiful state: vast and wide open, but every week there was a new deadly DUI or shooting.

So I entered film criticism as a way of staying sane. When those things dominate the news, and you’re the one reporting them, a little escapism goes a long way.

Because of that, I view criticism as something hopeful, not cynical. I didn’t start reviewing as a way of tearing down movies, but of celebrating them. No matter how bad a movie is, there’s always someone out there who’ll be excited to see it. My job isn’t to communicate whether a movie’s good or bad according to one critic – Metacritic can already tell you that according to 100 critics. Instead, my job is to translate something about the experience of watching each movie – if I do it right, different readers will read me differently, just like they’d each watch the movie differently.

Women Are Pushed Out of Storytelling

Though, if you’d asked me about the Bechdel Test in 2007, I would’ve had no clue what you were talking about. I would have assumed women were being represented on film more than ever, not that their agency in film had plateaued around 1995 and steadily dropped off since 2000.

In the last few years, something’s turned the situation even worse. When Kristen Stewart, in a relationship but unmarried, slept with a man twice her age, she was essentially blackballed from large studio productions. The man she slept with was her director on Snow White and the Huntsman, Rupert Sanders. He held a position of power over her, was married, and had children. He was rewarded with a $200 million film – the sought-after Ghost in the Shell remake. Double standard much?

Women are routinely blamed for a movie’s lack of quality or for failure at the box office, while male directors (women only directed 3% of all studio films last year), writers, and stars are forgiven or signed on for the sequel. Both Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey were massive box office successes directed by women. In the same position, men have ransomed their return to franchises in exchange for funding their passion projects – returning to the Dark Knight franchise is how Christopher Nolan got Inception financed, for instance. Women? When a franchise exceeds expectations, they get removed from it.

When Angelina Jolie delivered Unbroken last year, she was roundly criticized for the film’s terrible script. Meanwhile, screenwriters Ethan, and Joel Coen were praised. The visuals in Unbroken were lauded. Cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was praised. Jolie was forgotten. Jack O’Connell delivered an incredible performance. How he performed so well with Jolie as the director was questioned. Mainstream criticism acted as if anything faulty in the movie was Jolie’s fault. Men hadn’t done anything wrong, even when the element was their sole responsibility. Anything successful was because of a man.

Pair this with Gamergate, and what systematic harassment, doxxing, and threats have done to women in the video game industry. Pair that with recent findings that colleges across the country are sweeping sexual assault under the rug. Pair these with the Isla Vista shootings and the young shooter’s addiction to men’s rights sites that endorsed violence against women. Pair those with a Senate that’s repeatedly rejected equal pay acts, despite women making 77 cents for every dollar men make in similar jobs. Add the many reasons up, and there’s no denying how prominent misogyny is everywhere.

What the Bechdel Test Tells Us About a Film

The test was introduced by Alison Bechdel in a 1985 comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. It merely asks three questions of a film:

1. Does it have more than one named woman in it?

2. Do they talk to each other?

3. About something other than a man?

It’s not that hard to pass. At least, it shouldn’t be, despite 44% of the movies we make that are failing to do so.

I include the Bechdel Test at the end of every movie review I write. The Bechdel Test isn’t a judgment of a movie’s worth or quality. It’s just one tool of a great many that helps people decide whether to see a movie, and what to expect. A film can still be good while failing it. A film can still be feminist while failing it – the most famous recent example of this is Gravity, which simply fails because Sandra Bullock is alone on-screen for most of the film.

Similarly, a film can pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors – as the recent, live-action Cinderella remake does – while still posing weak-willed, victimized women whose only hope is being rescued by a man who obsesses over and stalks her.

The Bechdel Test is not an absolute; it is a tool of measure. Like any test, it’s nothing without context, so after I ask those three questions, I always discuss them. Some films are more straightforward and the discussion’s short. For others, it’s an opportunity to delve into their social implications from a different vantage point.

Sometimes my review section and Bechdel section will even disagree on something. Nobody ever got hurt by looking at a piece of art from two different perspectives.

What’s the Point?

The idea isn’t to fill all movies with gender-equal casts that possess some perfect ratio. Nor is the goal to eradicate movies that feature all-male casts. Movies that lack or minimize women aren’t inherently bad. There are just too many of them. There’s an exclusion of opportunities for women in the film industry. Male-dominated movies shouldn’t disappear – they should just be better balanced across the industry with movies that focus on women.

It’s not a lot to ask when you think about it, but try saying it in a room full of critics or filmmakers without getting in an argument.

The Bechdel Test is an avenue into discussing how women are included in a movie. I often use the section to also address how a movie interacts with other social issues, like the representation of minorities, and sometimes even to discuss how damaging male stereotypes are dismantled or reinforced. It’s all part of one conversation, and it all helps remind us that the film industry still has a lot of work to do.


Did you know about The Bechdel Test? Do you find this test important?

 Additional image: Twitter



Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.